By the Sea

” Travel and a change of place impart new vigor in the mind.” — Seneca 

 

Who doesn’t love a beach town? Arcachon, on the Bay of Biscay southwest of Bordeaux, is a welcome change of pace from the woodsy hills of the Dordogne.  With no castles in sight, Arcachon is younger than most towns in France, and its Spanish tile roofs remind me of Florida. When a train line was established here in the 1840’s, developers, assisted by a young Gustav Eiffel, built a Moorish Casino, a luxury hotel, and several mansions.

We arrived at the beach just in time for lunch. Restaurants line the beach promenade, and we chose one that featured mussels. Mike happily slurped his way through a heaping pot of moules  swimming in a white wine garlic sauce.

The sun was shining today, but few people lolled around on the sand. Summer season is over, and most people out for a stroll kept their jackets on until late afternoon. White boats moored offshore bobbed around in the water, and a 1900 carousel twirled around at the end of the beach.

After a walk along the shore, we headed up to the Ville L’Hiver, the Winter Village. In the 1860’s, this became a resort that attracted tuberculosis patients because the balsam pines that grow there were thought to be beneficial for those with the disease. After Napoleon III visited in 1863, Arcachon’s Ville L’Hiver became the place to be for the celebrities including Toulouse Latrec and Alexander Dumas. The architecture in the ville is a blend of Swiss chalet and English cottage styles, with whimsical painted trims and decorative brickwork. The  centerpiece of the neighborhood is the Parc Marquesque, where  local retirees passed this pretty afternoon played boule.

Our French vacation ends tomorrow, and we head for Bordeaux airport bright and early. Tonight at dinner we had  our traditional last night conversation, listing our favorite sights, activities,  meals. How to choose the creme de la creme from the buffet of delights we’ve experienced? J’aime bien France!

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A Day in Rocamadour

“If it scares you, it might be a good thing to try.” — Seth Godin

Back when I was a kid at St. Bede’s School, we learned a lot about the lives of the saints, but until this trip, I’d never heard of St. Amadour, the namesake of Rocamadour. A local abbot with an entrepreneurial mindset built a church in 1166 in a cave where a well-preserved body of the hermit Amadour was found. Over one hundred miracles were recorded, and the site became a destination for pilgrims, the tourists of the Middle Ages.

We didn’t come here to kneel on every fifth step in prayer as the penitents did, but to take in this stunning village that looks like it’s been carved out of a rock wall. We began our visit with a walk down the single street that makes up the main part of town, lined with shops and restaurants. Then it was time to get serious, and we ascended 223 steps to the Cite’ Religieuse, home of the Basilique St. Sauveur, the Chappelle Notre Dame, and five other small places of worship. This was a good spot to take a breather before we headed to the tippy-top.

Upwards we went, this time on a winding path with small grottos dedicated to the fourteen Stations of the Cross. The morning sunshine had faded by now, and the trees cast a contemplative, serene air over the walkway.

By the time we hit the ramparts, it was raining, but we were undeterred. We entered the ramparts and from there we gaped at the sheer drop below us. In a moment of temporary insanity, we kept going, up a narrow, open staircase with flimsy, wet handrails,  just to claim that we didn’t wimp out before we reached the apex. Photo op, photo op, and then we had to get down. I didn’t dare look at anything but the next step below my feet as I minced my way downward. ( Look at the first picture really closely. See that angled little line under the clock tower? That’s where we were. What the hell were we thinking?)

Since we’d managed to avoid plummeting to our deaths, we’d earned a ride on the funicular and took the easy way down. After lunch, we stopped in a pretty little art gallery and purchased three prints from a local artist, ethereal watercolors of the Dordogne and Rocamadour.

On our last day in the region, our heads are filled with images of castles and magical vistas. Au revoir!

 

 

 

Chateau des Milandes

“Nobody is too old for fairy tales.”

 

It’s strange to be writing about our castle visit today while we are preoccupied with our own little castle in Sarasota and the plight of all Floridians. A jaunt in the French countryside was a nice diversion from spending a day glued to the Weather Channel.

The Chateau des Milandes has quite a different vibe from the Chateau Beynac, just across the Dordogne River, and its neighbor just down the road, the Castelnaud. Milandes is newer and more ladylike, set off by itself. This is a getaway from the hustle-bustle of medieval commerce and battling. It was built in 1489 by the Lord of Castelnaud for his wife who was tired of living in Castelnaud. I don’t blame her. The place was war-weary,  a fortress built for defense, not for beauty, and it was loaded with weaponry. Spacious, yes; charming, no.

Milandes sits prettily upon a hillside, like all castles do, and it features a more delicate architecture than her bellicose neighbors. Over the centuries it’s had its ups and downs, but in the 1930’s,  it was purchased by Josephine Baker. Ms. Baker was an African-American singer who came to France as a young woman and became a renowned star of the Folies-Bergere. She lovingly restored the castle and added modern features, like Art Deco bathrooms, one in the colors of a Lanvin perfume bottle. The castle tour featured much about the life of Josephine Baker, a risqué performer, a beautiful singer, an important player in the French resistance, and a humanitarian.

The Chateau tour included  a falconry demonstration, some well-manicured gardens, and spectacular views of its neighboring castles and towns. It was a good place to see but a bit touristy, we thought,  and not as memorable as our other visits in the Dordogne, to Beynac, Pech-Merle, and Lascaux. Still, we packed our camera with pretty pictures and had a nice lunch on the terrace, taking in another day in France. Nothing to complain about at all!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Cave of Lascaux

“Cave men didn’t live in caves.” — Julien, tour guide at Lascaux IV

 

On a vacation dedicated to wine and castles, prehistoric sights weren’t at the top of my “can’t wait to see” list. So, it was especially fun to find them so fascinating. We were impressed by the cave paintings we saw yesterday at Pech-Merle, but today’s visit to Lascaux IV left us gob-smacked.

In 1940,  teenage boys discovered the Lascaux cave when they pulled their dog out of a hole he’d fallen into. Poking their flashlights further into the chasm, they spied the drawings on the cave wall. Sacre bleu!

The caves were open to the public in ’48, but by ’63, the breathing of so many tourists caused some deterioration to the paintings, and the caves were closed to the public. A replica called Lascaux II was built for tourists, but that has now been surpassed by the brand new Lascaux IV, which just opened in December ’16.

No, we can no longer traipse through the original, but today we toured a perfect replica. The Lascaux artists painted their pictures about 19,000 years ago, so the images are 10,000 years younger than those we saw at Pech-Merle. Quell difference ! The fine points and sophistication  of the Lascaux drawings are heads and shoulders above the others, with intricate details of the horses, bison, and deer. Imagine these painters working painstakingly in near darkness, lighting small bowls of animal fat for their only illumination.

The multi-media displays in the museum were Disney-esque without the cheesiness. With headphones and a mini tablet tailored to our individual profile, we walked from exhibit to exhibit absorbing information about the paintings and the work of archeologists. If we saw something we liked, we snapped a photo right on our devices, and these will be emailed to is. A 3-D movie topped off the experience.

All afternoon, I’ve been thinking about these ancient people whose minds and imaginations were so highly developed. There is no “right” answer for so many questions. Who were the artists? How did they choose their subjects? Were some things symbols for specific ideas, concepts, or beliefs? Why did the paintings focus on animals, and not on human beings or plant life?

And who would have suspected that my imagination and sense of wonderment would have been so captured by the cave artists of France?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grotte du Pech-Merle

“Regardless of your journey, you can put a little pilgrim in your travels and find your own personal jubilation.” Rick Steves Travel as a Political Act

The travel guy Rick Steves often preaches his “back door” philosophy. He recommends that visitors to Europe go beyond the major tourist attractions and acquaint themselves with the people, the towns, and the landscape of the country they’re in. Today, we did just that.

Our destination was Le Grotte du Pech-Merle, a prehistoric cave south of Sarlat in the Figeac district. It didn’t seem so far, but, oops, we miscalculated. And, since the prehistoric French decided to paint the caves that are far from the autoroutes, once again we were forced to traverse around narrow curly-que roads. Once in a while, we’d land on a road with an actual stripe painted down the middle, and we’d give a cheer.

Along the way, I had the chance to practice my French, when we stopped at a gas station for directions. I managed to nail down the correct route thanks to the kindness of a couple of locals.

So, we got there! It was well worth the trip. The caves of Pech-Merle were rediscovered in 1922 by a couple of teenagers who were goofy enough to go into the cave, and then smart enough to report their discovery to the local priest who was also a historian and a speleologist. The cave is a beautiful place, and it was hard to wrap our brains around the fact that we were seeing the prehistoric paintings from 29,000 years ago.  The vibrant drawings looked like they might have been completed yesterday. We learned about the artists’ techniques and the theories about their significance in a well-organized tour.

After our visit, we were back on the road to Sarlat, retracing our route through the countryside. Where to have lunch in the middle of nowhere?  We spotted a pleasant-looking spot is Lauzes and took a chance. Once again, my rudimentary French came in handy, and we ordered fresh salads served with hearty slices of crusty bread and a glass of wine before hitting the road once again. The trip back seemed easier. After all, we were experienced back-road navigators by now.

 

 

Along the Dordogne

” Travel is about the glorious feeling of teetering on the unknown.” — Author Unknown

Our day started with another tussle with the GPS bitch, who sent us over hill and dale, along cowpaths and one lane roads tufted with thick grass to reach our destination. The homework I’ve done this summer, pouring over Rick Steves, Frommer,  and Michelin, truly paid off  when we arrived at the village of Beynac. It clings to the side of a steep hill along the Dordogne River, with a fierce castle guarding all residents from on top. After we adjusted the GPS from the “Let’s mess with these stupid Americans” setting to the appropriate “Fastest Route” setting, we unclenched our jaws and set off to explore.

The medieval village is composed of timeworn stone buildings in muted shades of sepia and gold, unchanged for hundreds of years. A steep cobbled walkway winds its way past so many charming doorways and eye-popping vistas that we had plenty of opportunities to stop for photos and to catch our breath. Since I’m a big fan of pretty lampposts and weathered doorways, I loaded our camera with a jillion shots.

If you’ve seen the film Jeanne d’Arc ( I haven’t), you’ve seen the castle. Before it was a movie set, the Chateau was the home of Richard the Lionhearted and was a big player in the Hundred Years War. It’s a tough place, and any warriors who might have dared to bash in its gates would have been ducking flying arrows and rocks, quick lime, and pitch tossed from the battlements. When the good guy knights of the realm came to dinner, they had to hang their lances on the wall and slip their swords into notches on the table.

Across the river on opposing hillsides, the Chateaux Castelnaud and the  Milandes stared back at us, sneering in envy at the size and grandeur of Beynac..  Our trip down the hill was a piece of cake compared to the trek up, and we couldn’t help looking backward to marvel at the 150 meters we’d climbed.  Our next visits were to La Roque Gagaec and Domme, two other stars of the Dordogne.  But you won’t find any more details here. I’m calling it a night.

Holiday Road

  “Attitude is the difference between an ordeal and an adventure.” — Bob Bitchin

So, Broz said, “We’re going to rent the car at the Bordeaux airport instead of in the city. When we drive to Sarlat, I want to avoid the city traffic and just get on the road.”

I said, “Good idea. Hiring a driver to get to the airport is well worth the fifty euros if we can manage to avoid sressful driving in a city we don’t know.”

So, this morning a driver picked us up at our hotel and whisked us off to the airport. There we spent about forty minutes fiddling around at the Budget counter and then getting into the Prius we’d rented. The GPS was set to English, we put in our address in Sarlat-la-Canada, and the Budget guy assured us that the route was set to the highway that would skirt the city. Broz figured out how to release the emergency break, and we were on our way!

Yup, on our way… but the snippy-toned GPS gal, in her irritatingly perfect British English, sent us back through the heart of the city, right along the streets we’d rode on to get to the airport. Deja vu!  We drove past our hotel, where we’d been picked up 90 minutes earlier. We dodged buses and snaked through a construction zone. Then, to add insult to injury, Ms. Snooty GPS Voice directed us to turn onto the Pont de Pierre. Mais, non! Pont de Pierre is a pedestrian bridge, and the Bordeaux gendarmerie frown on cars attempting to cross it.

We disobeyed Ms. GPS’s orders, but she was having none of it. “Turn back,” she directed, and when we ignored her commands, she scolded us. “Recalculating…. recalculating….”

But we Griswolds outfoxed her. Clark headed north to another bridge and traversed across the river. Ms. GPS wasn’t finished with us, though. In the space of about one square block, the bitch tried to send us into oncoming traffic, and when we ignored her, we were punished with several goofy turns. We were sure that GPSers sitting in front of a screen somewhere, laughing their heads off, saying, “Look at this jackass! I have him going in circles!”

Yet we prevailed, avoided driving into oncoming traffic, and then  a juggler entertained us at a stoplight.  (BTW, the circus is in town),  Finally, two and a half hours after we’d left our hotel, we were on the damn  road out of town.

Well, we had no deadlines. What did it matter when we arrived in Sarlat? What’s a trip without a little hiccup to chuckle about, right? But by one thirty, we were getting hungry and needed a bathroom. Where to stop?

We desperately kept our eyes peeled for a place to eat, but by now we were tooling along a country road and no options presented themselves. Then! A sign — Le Relais de Gascogne–  a bar, some umbrella tables, and, lots of trucks lined along the side of the road — always a good sign.  We took a chance and pulled over.

Serendipity! What looked like a sketchy little bar was a bustling place with plenty of  the local Francais enjoying their dejuener. Next to us sat a seventy- something couple, he with the thickest thatch of eyebrows I’ve ever seen. Nearby was a grandpere with his grandfils. A bourgeoisie in a chic tan suit was greeted warmly by the proprietor. Out on the terrace, a table of ten or so laborers in dusty gray tee shirts bearing the logo of a nearby chateau took time out for their lunch break.

A darling little French girl explained the menu du jour. For a mere thirteen euros, we had potage du jour — scalloped potatoes and ham–followed by an main plat of  delicious French version of meatballs and spaghetti, followed by dessert of creme brûlée or chocolate mousse, all accompanied by a demi-bottle of vin rouge. Incredible! This was hearty country food, not Michelin-rated  nouvelle cuisine. We loved it.

So, this is what travel is all about. Sometimes things don’t go as planned, and then you end up with a story to tell and an unexpected bowl of chocolate mousse for lunch.

Later than planned, we arrived in Sarlat, which looks like a fairy tale. But, that’s a story for tomorrow.